Chrono Trigger is one of my favourite games of all time, and after recently treating myself to the piano sheet music, I found myself wanting to replay the game as well. The Steam Christmas sale provided the perfect opportunity — and I’m glad I took it.
My main worry was the quality of the PC port, which was panned at launch. Thankfully, it’s fine now. The interface is clean, not at all like a mobile game. The music and sprite work shine through. The localisation is effective — I like it better than the original SNES prose. The sprites seemed to move too fast at first, but this problem corrected itself after loading the game for the first time.
The game itself holds up magnificently. Playing through, I have a constant smile on my face: it’s as good as I remember. It’s charming, imaginative, and briskly paced, with likeable characters, great music, and remarkable attention to detail. With the Steam sale still ongoing, this is a great time for established fans to revisit Chrono Trigger, or for new players to discover it — I’m happily revisiting faraway times.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you’re all safe and well.
This year I played the usual new and new-ish strategy games. XCOM: Chimera Squad, Shadow Empire, and Crusader Kings III were all strong releases. Amongst 2019 games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall was a solid combat-focused 4X and Planet Zoo was a charming and pleasant management game.
My great discovery was the Anno series: I’ve put almost 150 hours into Anno 1800 alone, a game that combines gorgeous production values, engrossing city management, and Paradox-like depth and replayability. On some evenings, I tinkered with coffee production chains or proudly set up new tractors. At other times, I found myself plunged into a city-building version of the Empire: Total War successor I’ve always wanted, as my trading empire fought for its life across multiple continents. Whether trying to inaugurate a World’s Fair, or ensuring that the chocolate must flow, there is always something more to do. And I think the Anno series’ central idea — that society depends on long, elaborate production chains — felt especially relevant this year.
I also replayed many classic strategy games, ranging from the 1990s to the 2010s. These included Supreme Commander: Forged AllianceJagged Alliance 2, and a raft of 4X titles: Imperialism 2, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders III, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri.
The standout was Alpha Centauri, which I would argue is still the best 4X game ever made: it has some of the best science fiction worldbuilding in any game, while also shining on a mechanical level. With Alpha Centauri, 1990s strategy game design reached its peak: it offered the player a dazzling range of toys without falling into the pitfalls that afflict modern games, such as bloat or an over-emphasis on “balance”. And it could teach the modern Civilization series how to handle warfare: armies, navies, and air forces are punchy and interesting to use, without either the problems of Civilization IV‘s stacks of doom or the subsequent one-unit-per-tile rule.
Finally, this was the year in which I tried new and different types of games, both on PC and on Switch:
X4: Foundations and the early access version of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord made me realise how much I love dynamic worlds, where I can set my own objectives and carve out a niche alongside a map full of NPC factions trying to do the same.
I returned to flight sims for the first time since childhood with the beautiful, accessible Flight Simulator. Within a few hours, I was confidently taking off, flying, and landing Cessnas; now I’m sightseeing around the world. Flight Simulator proved to be my gateway back into the genre: I went on to test the waters of combat sims with War Thunder. In the last week, I bought Star Wars: Squadrons and IL-2, and I’m currently eyeing DCS World’s modern aircraft.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my first real experience with Metroidvanias (I played Symphony of the Night many years ago but didn’t get far). Now that I’m nearing the end, I see why people love this genre! The blend of combat and exploration reminds me of a much easier, 2D version of Dark Souls — I love working out where to go next, based on the latest ability I’ve unlocked — and its goofy, over-the-top cast and setting are far from what the ominous title suggests.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was my first Assassin’s Creed game since AC4: Black Flag. Its much better, more mobile combat and gorgeous depiction of Classical Greece won my heart. I just need to play more…
The cheerful, colourful Slime Rancher benefits from being in first person and in 3D. This gave it a satisfying physicality when puttering around the ranch or exploring the wilderness — something I found missing in top-down games such as Stardew Valley. It’s also very, very cute.
After casually playing Mario Kart games for years, and never doing well on anything faster than 100cc, this was the year in which I set out to master Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, my admiration grew for how well-designed MK8 is — its balance of skill and luck, its charm and character, how well it eases the player into a state of flow. MK8 also became the first game to get me back into online multiplayer since Eugen’s Wargame series, years ago. Just don’t ask me to do well on Rainbow Road…
Nintendo has the knack of making me try even genres I don’t normally play: Mario Galaxy is delightful, although I’m still at the button-mashing stage in Mario Tennis Aces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a pleasant experience that easily fit into my Switch routine.
My most notable Switch release of the year was a third-party game. Hades combines fast-paced action with good writing: the more I played, the more I realised how cleverly it blends a modern interpretation of Greek myth with the original themes. I cleared it for the first time on my 17th attempt, and narratively this is just the end of the beginning.
Amongst other third-party games, Two Point Hospital was an excellent port and a good game, albeit one that dragged on slightly too long. I enjoyed improving my virtual swing in Golf Story — while practicing for the final course, I revisited every previous course and consciously made an effort to use every tool the game placed at my disposal. Finally, the delightful A Short Hike was my favourite short-form game in years.
Best wishes to all of you for 2021, and I’ll see you next year.
This question popped into my mind while reading Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World earlier this year. Navies are important in history; and for the last few hundred years, the world’s leading power has also been a naval power. This is not reflected in historical strategy games such as Civilization, where navies are often optional unless playing on an island map.
I think the answer lies in these games’ economic and resource models. Consider the Civilization series:
Food, wealth, and industrial production come from working the countryside.
Cities use a generic “production” resource to build everything from cathedrals to tanks.
While more recent games introduced strategic resources which can be traded (such as oil), these resources instantly teleport across the map.
The result is that Civ emphasises control of territory and population, rewarding large land empires. There is no equivalent to Ancient Rome’s reliance on Egyptian grain or WW2 Britain’s Atlantic convoys.
In contrast, seapower becomes critical in games with detailed production chains, such as Imperialism and Anno1800. Their economies run on foods, minerals, and luxuries that are found around the world and shipped home. Navies are necessary to protect transports and cut off enemy trade.
While not every game can be built around a detailed, Anno 1800-style resource model, Empire: Total War offered an elegant solution. Trade was by far the best way to make money in that game; and that relied on sending out a navy to capture and defend trade nodes.
I think the lesson is that seapower matters once players have an incentive to contest the seas. Give sea lanes their historic importance as the arteries of commerce and wealth; and the importance of navies will follow.
A Short Hike is a brief, delightful experience: what you would get if you took Breath of the Wild’s emphasis on verticality and exploration, and channelled them into a rather different story about exploring a park, having fun, and making friends. The objective is to climb to the top of a mountain; the joy is in exploring branches off the trail, stumbling upon hidden sights, and discovering what else there is to do. The world is warm and inviting; the NPCs are friendly and kind; and the mechanics are solid, whether climbing a cliff-face, gliding down, or trying to hit a ball. And it can be completed quickly: I finished in a couple of hours, although I seem to have missed a fair bit of side content. It left me smiling, laughing, and at the end, wanting more.
Crusader Kings III is a successful evolutionary sequel to the game I called “the most significant strategy game of the last decade”. I’ve played three games — two unsuccessful in 867, the first as Alfred the Great and his descendants, the second an attempt to establish a Norse realm in India; and a final, successful run that took me from King of Scotland in 1066 to emperor of Britannia and Francia. And once I learned my way around CK3’s new, improved UI, I found a familiar experience: this is still a character-driven game about the rise and fall of dynasties, in which a loyal son can become the next generation’s rebellious brother; and a well-placed friendship can be worth thousands of swords.
The core of the game is recognisably the same as Crusader Kings II. Most of the mechanics are similar, the overall flow is the same, and lessons from CK2 still carry over. New rulers are most vulnerable when they ascend; just because you control territory on a map does not mean you command the obedience of the people who actually run the place; it is worth accepting setbacks — such as conceding to powerful vassals — if doing so strengthens your hand in the long run; and strategic marriages, opportunistic expansion, and shrewd vassal management are still the keys to a long and successful reign. The world feels similar, too: Northwest Europe is still a Viking playground in 867; large AI empires still grow until they sprawl over the map; and in the hands of a human player, Haesteinn of Nantes can still make it all the way to India1.
CK3’s new mechanics, such as stress, the lifestyle tree, and the hooks system, and its significant tweaks to existing rules such as succession, come on top of this familiar core. I think what the new mechanics do best is represent Machiavelli’s dictum that rulers need to be loved, feared, or ideally both. Playing generally benevolent monarchs, I found the most powerful button in the game was the “befriend” interaction: vassals who are also your friends will not join factions against you. But neither do vassals who are terrified of you, and so fear has its place too. Vassal management is particularly important as CK3’s succession rules make it harder to keep a gigantic demesne intact until fairly late in the game — with fewer lands of your own, you are closer to first among equals; and it becomes harder to overawe the realm’s magnates through sheer size alone.
Conversely, some of the nuance from CK2 is missing from CK3. For example, imperial government is gone; the Byzantines are back to generic feudalism; and there are no more special mechanics for the Silk Road or interacting with China. Without viceroys and the need to rein in an overly powerful council, there doesn’t seem to be as much sense of a progression from medieval to early modern government. And no Silk Road affects the gameplay in the East, where I usually played in CK2. Still, I can live with this — there is plenty to do as-is — and I assume these mechanics, or their replacements, may return in DLC.
The area of the game that feels weakest to me is warfare. Army management and individual battles are better than CK2: they are clearer, less fiddly, and easier to understand; and the game heavily rewards the player for investing in better troops or a more defensible demesne. The problem is the intermediate level, that of manoeuvres or campaigns — wars tend to degenerate into a race to see which side can siege down the other’s capital and demesne first. I think this is due to several reasons. There is no sense of geography or strategic depth: there are no zones of control, minimal logistics, and movement is easy by land or sea. War score is overwhelmingly awarded for sieges, territory ownership, and capturing key characters, with battles making up a relatively small part. And seizing the capital is particularly important, as this is where enemy leaders often reside, and capturing them is an automatic win. The result is farcical campaigns where the enemy army runs away, jumps onto a boat, sails to my capital, and tries to capture it before I can capture theirs; and the overall effect is a slightly less extreme version of Crusader Kings 1, where the fate of a kingdom could be settled by the capture of a handful of demesne provinces.
With that exception, I am quite happy with CK3. More of the same, in this case, has not been a bad thing. Whether setting up balance-of-power alliances; regaining the imperial throne from which I was deposed; or boggling at the giant, berserk Norse champion who killed 300+ of my men2, CK3 has generated both engaging strategy and memorable stories. I look forward to many more to come.
Although surviving there seems to be harder. I did it in CK2 and earned the “Legacy of the Indo-Norse” and “Saint Thomas’ Dream” achievements, but went down in flames after several generations in CK3. ↩
This immediately made me picture the Vinland Saga manga’s version of Thorkell the Tall. ↩
With the release of Crusader Kings III imminent, I wanted to revisit Crusader Kings II, and touch on why I consider it the most significant strategy game of the last decade. While other games (XCOM, FTL) were more influential, I would argue it was CK2 that pushed the boundaries of what a strategy game could do. It succeeded on three levels: as a character-driven story generator, as a game, and as an exploration of historical forces.
Ask most players what stood out about their CK2 experience and the answer would be the characters — and their hijinks. Even now, almost 10 years later, CK2 is virtually unique in making individuals the building block of its world. Those individuals, and their plots, schemes, dreams, and desires were the material for the rich stories that CK2 generated. I remember the sullen vassal who put aside his differences with my character to fight off a Seljuk invasion, and gave his life defending the realm; the aunt who invaded with a band of adventurers to press her claim; the Christian Norse I led to India; and the dynasty of Sinicised Persian exiles who finally — finally! — carved out a lasting home for their faith in Central Asia.
Underpinning these stories was that CK2 was a pretty good strategy game as well — skill, and a detailed understanding of the rules, paid off. My Persian exiles only survived against the odds because I learned how to pull every lever available: rushing east to seize lucrative trading hubs along the Silk Road; using the resulting income to keep mercenaries on permanent payroll; hiring Chinese strategists to train my outnumbered army; and learning the intricacies of the battle system — this was the campaign that taught me the importance of grouping cavalry retinues on the flanks. There is satisfaction in mastering the game’s systems.
Finally, CK2 brought to life one of the most important historical forces of the last millennium — the rise of centralised government. There is a quantum leap between a tribe, which falls apart every time the leader dies, and a feudal proto-state. There is a more gradual progression, over the course of the game, from feudalism to monarchical authority. Over time, levies, hereditary vassals, and a council jealous of its prerogatives give way to standing armies, viceroys appointed at the ruler’s pleasure, and absolute power. It’s a wonderful example of how gameplay mechanics can illustrate how and why something happened in the real world.
Ultimately, CK2 became my favourite Paradox game and one of the greatest games of the 2010s. With CK3 reviews promising, I look forward to this series giving me many more stories to tell.
I’ve been playing X4: Foundations, a game that feels like a cross between Freelancer, Mount & Blade, and a tycoon game. On the surface, this resembles Freelancer: a space sim with mouse-based controls. Its underlying structure is closer to Mount & Blade — it drops the player into a living universe, whose factions mine, trade, and battle on their own; and within this world, my character has gone from solo adventurer to galactic magnate. Finally, the details resemble a tycoon or Anno game — I have spent most of my time building factories, juggling elaborate production chains, and keeping my bases stocked with a network of freighters.
This has been a wonderful setting for emergent, self-directed gameplay; and as the galaxy evolved, my goals changed, too. My X4 campaign began with odd jobs, such as dropping off satellites and retrieving cached goods. From these humble beginnings, I scrimped, saved, and bought my first few mining ships. I sent a ship to mine silicon in the resource-rich space of the Argon Federation, only to find some time later it had stopped selling to the refinery. What happened? It turned out there was no more refinery: a hostile fleet had pushed into Argon space; blown up the refinery; and destroyed the Argons’ space fighter production, too.
Well — here was my new objective. Roleplaying a patriotic Argon businessman, I decided to help the Argons rebuild, and earn a living in the process. Now there was a gap in the Argon economy, and I plugged it by building my own silicon refinery. That refinery became the cornerstone of my empire: I turned it into an electronics factory, supplying the surviving Argon shipbuilding facilities, and it became the cash cow that funded my expansion across the galaxy.
Now after 160+ hours, my bases span the map, producing spaceships of every size; a network of smaller factories feeds my shipyards with parts; and a swarm of miners and traders keep everything supplied. The Argon are restored; and I still have a soft spot for the territory where my character made his fortune.
As that timeline suggests, the most unique thing about X4 is its pacing. It takes significant real-world time to gather minerals or produce goods; hours to build up a station; and time compression is gated behind in-game requirements. I treated X4 as something closer to a real-life hobby, perhaps gardening or baking: every so often I would come by, check on my empire, tinker a bit, and order new construction. Then I went away, and let the game run in the background while I did other things. So while my Steam playtime is impressive, I have spent only a handful of the nominal 160 hours actually in control! The fun, for me, was in devising a system that could run smoothly on its own.
Occasionally X4 can be a bumpy experience. The game is very playable as of the current version (3.3), but I have encountered the odd bug — I once had to sell several freighters that refused to do anything, no matter what I tried. And its presentation — gorgeous universe, beautiful music, evocative system names such as “Fires of Defeat”, “Grand Exchange”, and “Second Contact” — is periodically marred by swathes of missing flavour text.
My biggest problem is the way X4 presents information. At heart, it is a complex tycoon game, and it should give the player the appropriate tools to manage this. There were many times I wished I had a sortable “empire overview” screen, similar to Civilization (or to the sidebar in Total War games): this should outline the player’s ships and stations together with appropriate data such as profit or loss, goods carried or produced, and goods currently in inventory. It would be better still if I could drill down from that hypothetical overview screen, like a pivot table. Instead I had to click station by station, eyeballing the production figures. The developers could learn a lot from strategy games — 4X and tycoon — and from real-world spreadsheets.
At the end of the day, though, X4 is a unique game that sells the “space opera” fantasy better than any other space sim I’ve played. This is the only game where I can stand on the deck of my own shipyard, and watch the traffic come and go; build a carrier at the yard; and command my fleet from its bridge. I can forgive it for also being the only game that makes me periodically wish for an accountant.
For the past week I’ve happily been playing Shadow Empire, a new indie game that straddles the 4X and wargame genres. Now that I’ve won my first game, I think Shadow Empire resembles the Dominions series in its early incarnations: a remarkable game, rough-edged but deep, unique, and all the more remarkable for being the work of one man.
I could best describe Shadow Empire’s premise as a crunchy, simulationist wargame version of the classic Armageddon Empires. Centuries after the fall of the Galactic Republic, civilisation is beginning to re-emerge, and you lead a band of survivors in their fight for control of a post-post-apocalyptic planet. As in 4X games, you build up cities, research new technologies, and expand the empire.
What defines Shadow Empire is its central, wargame-inspired mechanic: logistics. Logistics is central in that it binds together the empire management (4X) and military (wargame) halves of the game, and central in that it is critical to each half. Armies need food, fuel, and bullets, and as in many wargames, there is a supply system that determines whether they receive these — supply flows from HQ, is carried along roads and rail lines, and ultimately reaches the troops. What makes Shadow Empire unique in the 4X genre is that the same system is used for the civilian side of the empire — those same roads and rails are used to ship resources from province to province. Logistics matter!
This has multiple implications. Provinces need infrastructure investment: truck depots, train stations, roads, and railways (and the capital, as the default supply nexus, needs a lot). Campaigning on the frontier, or at the end of a tenuous supply line, is difficult until that infrastructure is in place. Large empires — and large armies — are vulnerable to having their lines of communication severed.
As this highlights, logistics are both a natural “rubber band” mechanism and an important driver of strategy. Early on, my empire was a long, thin, snaky thing, connected by a single railway. My tiny field army was off on the frontier, having just subjugated a band of Mad Max-style raiders. When a major AI empire declared war, and their hordes swarmed towards my heartland — the capital and the railway — my eyes popped. If they had taken the railway, they could have cut my empire in two! I frantically raised new troops and rushed my existing armies home, abandoning the newly conquered raider territory. In time, I pushed the invaders back; and either I did a good job of cutting them off from supplies, they recruited more troops than their economy could support, or something went badly wrong on their home front, because their troops were consistently “hungry” or “starving”. But as I drove them further and further back, now it was my turn to run into supply issues: my vanguard would sometimes have to pause until the supply infrastructure could catch up.
Once a secure supply line is in place, the rest of the military side of the game is relatively straightforward. There is a lot of maths under the bonnet, but the basics feel familiar and sensible: infantry doesn’t do well at charging machine guns; tanks and artillery are much better at breaking through; and encircling enemy armies is much better than trying to grind them down in a war of attrition. My playbook from other wargames, such as Unity of Command 2, worked a treat: break through the front line, cut enemies off from their supply, and seize cities by coup de main. And I could do this because my army was smaller than my AI opponents’, but better equipped with tanks and motor transport1.
As this highlights, I think Shadow Empire is a lot less complex, or at least much easier to understand, than it seems at first glance. There are a lot of systems running in the background, but cause and effect follow clear, intuitive logic. So for example, during setup, the game generates different biomes and climactic conditions across the world, which affects rainfall across the map. This sounds complicated … but it makes intuitive sense that my population needs to be fed, and that crops need water to grow; so building farms in a lush coastal province is better than building them in the desert. Similarly, tanks need fuel to run. So if I’m running low on fuel — say, because my enemy has conquered my oil wells — I can cut civilian consumption by adopting renewable energy; cut military consumption by researching more efficient tank engines; or increase production by drilling new wells and investing in bio-diesel. The challenge comes from first, the “quirky” user interface, and second, the sheer novelty of the game’s concepts.
And there really are a lot of novel concepts. There’s a Distant Worlds-style private sector. There’s the hard science fiction world generation at the beginning of each game, which determines climate, habitability, the edibility of local plant life, the hostility of wildlife, the extent of pre-fall ruins, the amount of radiation in the environment, and more. I’ve seen screenshots of other players’ games with giant 6m-tall wildlife rampaging around.
There are also a lot of rough edges. Now that I’m becoming used to the UI, my main complaint is extremely slow late-game turn times. By around turn 100, it took 5 to 10 minutes to process the AI’s turn! I resorted to streaming TV, while periodically alt-tabbing to check on whether the game was ready. The developer has been very active with patches — one week since release, it’s already up to version 1.03 — so hopefully this can be addressed2.
I think the ultimate compliment is that I want to return to this game. It looks to have the replayability of good 4X and grand strategy titles: I want to try high-tech starts, tropical worlds with hostile life, and more. With luck, it will have the same longevity as the genre’s greats.
Enjoy the site? Subscribe below to receive email notifications:
At first I thought this was an AI failing — the two empires I fought relied mostly on gigantic human wave armies. But on the final turn of my game, I encountered another empire that was small, but well-equipped and technologically superior. So perhaps the AI has different play-styles? ↩
There has already been one bugfix that addressed turn speed. I started playing with the launch version of the game so I don’t know if this was fixed by the patches, or if I would need to start a new game. ↩
… because it asks “what if”, and then answers that question.
Chimera Squad takes as its premise something established by the previous XCOM games: most of the alien species that invaded Earth are victims too, twisted and warped into weapons of war. Then, it builds on this. What if their masters’ defeat left the alien army free from slavery, but stranded on Earth? And what if humanity responded by extending a hand to its former enemies?
I love the illustrations of daily life that we see between missions, such as a Viper using an ATM at the bank (right), humans and aliens watching TV together (bottom), at the shop (bottom left), and in the workplace (top), aliens waiting for the bus (left centre), and a Sectoid radio host in his studio (top left).
The result is what we see in game. Once you accept that this is soft science fiction – the sort where aliens wear clothes, work in offices, and eat fast food – this is a remarkably well thought out world; I would go so far as to say this is possibly Firaxis’ best writing since Alpha Centauri (and definitely since Civilization IV). Some of this can be seen in the plot; more can be seen in the background flavour. Images of daily life, and in-universe posters, show how aliens have adopted human customs: we see aliens on holiday, watching TV, going to cocktail parties, rescuing cats from trees, starring in movies, and wearing make-up. One poster even exhorts them to “dress like humans… [it] will help you fit in!” Is its audience aliens looking to fit in, or humans who need to be convinced? Regular ads for fast food are funny, but also clever: not every species can eat every food, and society has had to work out how to keep diners safe. And not everybody, human or alien, is happy with the new arrangements: there are alien protesters who worship spaceships, and human protesters who want to start a fight. On a slightly meta level, there is even an in-universe buddy detective show featuring an alien and a human lead1.
And just as science fiction can serve as a commentary on the real world, it’s impossible for me not to read meaning into Chimera Squad. The squad is a group of former enemies – in one case, two agents fought on opposite sides of the same battle – who have put the past behind them. A deliberate choice, in response to current times? I can’t help but think so.
That intent, and that willingness to adopt the ethos of “what if”, are why Chimera Squad works. Here the science fiction is not window dressing, but central to the premise. The result is a memorable setting and a world where I’d like to see more stories.
We never see this, but there’s an excerpt from its script at one point. ↩
While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.
The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.
This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.
Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.
Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.
Many kinds of armies have marched through history: regulars, militias, mercenaries, tribal and aristocratic warriors, and more. Yet while historical strategy games feature a colourful panoply of different troops, with distinct equipment and morale, they have typically skated over the question of how these soldiers were organised and paid. Usually, troops hang around indefinitely after being recruited; this system can be seen in games from Civilization to Europa Universalis and Total War. That said, there have been games with an interesting treatment of this subject.
The most detailed portrayal can be found in Crusader Kings 2. Realms field four different types of troops: levies, vassals’ levies, mercenaries, and personal retinues. With enough money, the last two can be turned into a de facto standing army, and thus a small but wealthy realm — say, one well-positioned on the Silk Road — can field a fighting force out of proportion to its size.
The genius of CK2 is how it incentivises players to follow history and professionalise their army. Levies take time to muster, and vassal levies have another disadvantage — the player is only entitled to them for a certain number of days. It’s better to ask for taxes to be paid in cash, and use the money to hire troops who are always on call.
Another clever example can be found in the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila. Charlemagne used the Total War series’ traditional systems for upkeep, recruitment cost, and recruitment time to encourage players to build a core of professional soldiers: professionals were slow to recruit but powerful and reasonably affordable to maintain, so it made sense to keep them as a standing force. By contrast, levies were cheap and easy to recruit, so there was no point keeping them around between wars; and mercenaries were easy to recruit but very expensive to maintain, so were too costly in peacetime.
As this highlights, mercenaries are quite common in Paradox and Total War games, where they are treated distinctly from regular troops. Typically they are very expensive in exchange for being available immediately. In Europa Universalis IV, mercenaries don’t drain national manpower; and in Total War games, they offer foreign troops who wouldn’t otherwise be available.
Finally, quite a few games allow the player to invest in militia, who then appear as free-spawn local defenders. These include Imperialism, the Total War series from Empire onwards, and fantasy and science fiction games such as the Dominions series and Age of Wonders: Planetfall.
Personally, I think this is fertile territory for the genre to explore further. From a gameplay perspective, this is ripe for trade-offs and interesting decisions: do you strengthen local defences, at the price of also strengthening local leaders? And from a flavour perspective, this would be another way to differentiate factions. I’d love to see more games follow the trail blazed by CK2.
This post is indebted to the late John Keegan, whose classification of armies in A History of Warfare has stuck with me all these years.
Seven hours in, I really like Chimera Squad, both from a mechanical and a narrative perspective.
The game is what I hoped it would be: a brisker, more elegant interpretation of XCOM’s tactical combat. The new turn system means that the old XCOM playstyle, “mow every enemy down in one round”, no longer applies. Instead there are new abilities, and new interesting decisions. With a few upgrades, Axiom, the Muton, can charge across the room and pummel multiple enemies; but is it worth leaving him exposed? Shelter, the psionic, can teleport and swap locations with an enemy. That enemy will become out of position and likely easy prey for the rest of the squad, but Shelter will be surrounded by his remaining foes. Is that worth it? Should I roll the dice on a 70% shot; or go for a guaranteed, low-damage melee attack that will ensure my next character can land a KO? Calculations such as these keep each battle interesting.
The strategic layer is simple but effective: there are too many things I’d like to do, and not enough agents to do them with. I would love to accelerate my research into new equipment; my agents are becoming out-gunned. I would also love to put my agents through advanced training; send them off to gather more resources; or rehabilitate them after injuries. But I only have so many agents, and each of them can only be in one place at one time.
The unexpected delight has been the worldbuilding — hands down my favourite in a Firaxis XCOM game. Humans and aliens living in uneasy peace makes for a great setting, and Chimera Squad brings it to life with details that range from the serious (the agents’ biographies hint at the horrors of the alien occupation) to the absurd (an in-universe ad for breakfast food is both hilarious and underscores the extent to which aliens have integrated into human society). I don’t even mind the wise-cracking dialogue, a clear homage to the “buddy cop” genre.
What could be next for the XCOM franchise? If Chimera Squad sells well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become its own spin-off series: so XCOM 3, Chimera Squad 2, etc, with each having its own distinct mechanics. I also wonder if, like Chimera Squad, XCOM 3 will borrow a leaf from Julian Gollop’s XCOM: Apocalypse. We now have a multi-species squad in an urban setting; what else could be in store?
After playing around 20 hours of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, I am convinced it is a superb game, for all that it is still (very) Early Access. Bannerlord’s magic is that, while it does not take place in a historical setting, it lets me imagine what history felt like.
This is clearest / most obvious at the micro level — individual battles. Whether fighting as a horse archer in swirling cavalry engagements, or peering out from behind a mantlet to exchange arrows with castle defenders, Bannerlord conveys the chaos, confusion, and spectacle of a medieval battle.
More than that, it sells the illusion of being my character. As I progressed from glorified vigilante to marcher lord, my concerns — and the gameplay — evolved at each step. Chasing bandits at the head of my posse, responsibilities were few: Make payroll and keep the soldiers fed. After I had earned a name for myself, and taken service as a mercenary captain with the Southern Empire, my horizons expanded — and so did the worries. Now I rode as part of the imperial armies, and my opponents were the armies of other kingdoms. I had to help win battles (and hope the general did not get over-confident), look for isolated enemy forces I could pick off, and preserve my own troops — my critical stock in trade. At last, when the Empress Rhagaea granted me lordship of a newly liberated border city, I had a rich reward — and a precarious one. Now it was up to me to strengthen my garrisons, keep the city fed, and watch the frontier like a hawk, lest an enemy army snatch away my prize. My days of criss-crossing the map were over.
Helping this is the game’s sharp distinction between the money and resources available to a landed lord and those available to a landless adventurer. At the start of the game, it was a victory every time I scraped together enough cash to buy a better piece of armour. Saving up 900 or 1,000 coins to hire my first companion seemed as feasible as flying to the moon. As a lord, I pulled in thousands of coins a day. What was the cost of war horses and top-of-the-line armour for my companions?
As a final note, Bannerlord generates the kind of set-pieces that would belong in an Akira Kurosawa movie. At one point during my mercenary career, the army that I’d joined was defeated. My character was taken prisoner, escaped, was caught by bandits, and escaped again. Taking no chances, I limped back to the nearest friendly village and decided to rest and heal. I was still there when a dozen marauding horsemen showed up. And so when the village militia took up arms to defend their homes, one mercenary horse archer fought alongside his hosts. Seven Samurai? There was only one of me!
What were my favourite games that I played for the first time?
If 2018 was the year in which I bought a Switch and rediscovered the joys of Nintendo games, then 2019 has been a wonderful year for new releases. I played three excellent new games, any one of which would qualify to be Game of the Year: Dragon Quest Builders 2, Total War: Three Kingdoms, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses:
Dragon Quest Builders 2 has been my unexpected hit of the year. I love building towns, rooms, fields, even defensive walls. I love DQB2’s charming, cheerful characters and world. And even after finishing the story months ago, I love tinkering with my island in the postgame: adding spas, barns, irrigation, and a rail network, fleshing out floor plans, and renovating my early projects with everything that I’ve learned since. I am pretty confident this will be my evergreen Switch game for the foreseeable future.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is beautiful, challenging, and immersive — a return to form after the hit-and-miss Rome 2 generation. Whether desperately battling to save my capital from a superior invader; planning elaborate, multi-pronged campaigns; haggling with computer players that finally act believably and in-character; or simply admiring the aesthetic, this was almost everything that I hoped for.
Similarly, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favourite in its series. It rewards careful planning — both in battle, and when strategising how to recruit, train, and develop my crew of heroes — with triumphant satisfaction when those plans come together. And its epic narrative, closer to Legend of the Galactic Heroes than to traditional fantasy, has me intrigued. I estimate I’m 70%-80% through my first run, and I look forward to seeing how it will conclude.
Honourable mentions go to three more games: Rule the Waves 2, which challenges players to design, build, and command not the shiniest navy — but the one that’s most appropriate and cost-effective; and Wargroove and Crying Suns, which show what indie strategy games can do with a striking aesthetic and solid gameplay.
Incidentally, this marks a change from the last couple of years. My favourite games of 2018 were mostly Switch titles that had been released in 2017, such as Super Mario Odyssey, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and one of my all-time favourites, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And my favourite game of 2017 — Shadow Tactics — was likewise released in December 2016.
What are some games that I revisited?
I also revisited, or kept playing, a number of games that I’d played in previous years. Sometimes, this followed the release of new DLC or updates — as with various PC strategy games. Other times, it was about continuing an existing play-through. Some I particularly enjoyed were:
Continuing to explore Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m still not finished, but with Breath of the Wild 2 announced, a brand-new copy of Link’s Awakening awaiting me, and the DLC a tad too hard for me, perhaps I should just move onto the final battle with Ganon.
Playing through the postgame of Super Mario Odyssey;
Exploring alien archaeological sites and building a galactic empire in Stellaris‘ Ancient Relics DLC;
Saving the world from fascism for the umpteenth time in Hearts of Iron IV: Man the Guns – and leading the NCR in the Fallout total conversion mod;
Trying out new civilisations and winning the space race again in Civilization VI: Gathering Storm.
Playing Battletech’s career mode — aka Galactic Mercenary Hand-to-Mouth Simulator — in ironman.
knives — In an ideal world, I
wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue
civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go
after the boss — I’ve had little choice.
My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket
towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the
civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a
powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several
lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept.
Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new
arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.
It’s time to improvise.
like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’
mission design. The game’s rules are fairly basic: most
battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually
activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way
to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off
enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of
complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a
Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
Optional bosses with rare drops.
A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.
This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds
challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable
set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.
Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward
decision in Three Houses works better
to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up
MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although
with greater variety (granted, Three
Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation).
Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than
Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies
positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the
enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach —
charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too
far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard,
so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra
the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.
Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of
going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush
characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I
pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned,
I push onto victory.
tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours
into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up
to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked
away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three
Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great
time with Three Houses’ turn-based
battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem
series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.
intelligent turn-based combat —
Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the
basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where
to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is
to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn.
This might include:
Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.
And because this is an RPG, individual
characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users
ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance.
Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured
knight. Attention to detail is important!
mitigate against frustration —
There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters
will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different
Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
leaf from Persona was inspired — Three
Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and
interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona,
this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each
week. I like this for a couple of reasons:
First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.
vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three
Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into
the series for me — I look forward to playing more.
Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play
three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread
an old favourite, Lord of the Rings,
and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.
The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.
The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties. Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)
And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.
At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.
It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.
A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings,
accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation
for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a
book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has
something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational
text of the fantasy genre.
I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense.
Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven,
desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine
saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal
companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised
space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded
Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens
searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just
picked up another of her series (The
Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.
Hello! Since it’s been a while since
I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played
in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest.
Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent
DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch
and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the
Switch games have been more varied.
Wargroove was probably my standout game for
the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a
charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be
finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a
meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy
line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy
stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held
back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the
three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and
I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial
challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be
very interested in any DLC or sequels.
Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has
turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG
combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think
I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so
Temporarily on the back burner is the
Donkey Kong DLC for Mario
+ Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s
more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return
after playing more Steamworld Quest.
I have mixed feelings about Bomber
Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very
good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The
problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it
was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like
XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot
down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will
not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the
plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.
Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid
franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions —
vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player
extra options during a match.
Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts
of Iron IV: first the Man
the Gunsexpansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In
general, HOI4 becomes steadily better
with each version — Man the Guns and
its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most
recent version of Stellaris, and
while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility
that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed
transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for
all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the
last three years.
Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:
I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.
Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the
end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable,
even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m
going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa
Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played
for several expansions.
A few non-strategy games stare at me
from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey,
both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely
scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you
play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around
dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get
into it. Next time…
Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.
Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.
I can pinpoint the moment when Mario Odyssey won my heart. In the first hour of the game, I came across a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex lying on a small hill in the Cascade Kingdom, a colourful island of waterfalls and soaring cliffs. By now, I’d encountered the island’s hostile creatures — spiky little swarming monsters; big, snarling Chain Chomps — and down the hill from the T-Rex, there were more Chain Chomps up ahead. The game’s “capture” mechanic had already been introduced — Mario can transform into other characters by throwing his hat at them. So I took control of the T-Rex.
Mario’s hat and moustache appeared on its face.
The T-rex roared.
This was going to be good.
A vivid and varied cast. Each level of Mario Odyssey is full of weird and wonderful inhabitants such as the snoozing dinosaur; while some are hold-overs from previous Mario games, many are new. For example:
A stronghold modelled after Japanese castles is defended by jingasa-hatted warrior birds – you need to capture the birds, jab their sharp beaks into walls, and vault upwards to climb the walls.
At one point you need to compete against rotund racers who bounce up and down along the course.
Little touches seal the deal. There are the local outfits Mario can acquire as he travels from level to level, ranging from samurai armour (pictured below) to a pin-striped suit:
There’s the conceit behind the level maps — they’re not just a convenience for the player, they’re taken from in-universe tourist brochures. And there are the tourists themselves — check out the screenshot below, featuring a group of visitors to the desert level.
A treat for all ages. While Mario Odyssey is mechanically satisfying, what kept me coming back was how much I enjoyed its world. I enjoyed exploring each level; I enjoyed dressing Mario up in new costumes; I enjoyed wandering around in the post-game, seeing what had changed. Here’s to Nintendo, and its sense of joy.
Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is a gamebook — an interactive story about leading a clan in a world of myth and magic. Alongside its predecessor, King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages is almost unique in its intersection between storytelling and a resource-management game. And like King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages brings its setting to vibrant life, encouraging the player to stay in-character in a world where the divine is never far away.
Much of Six Ages is spent managing the day-to-day business of the clan: which gods to propitiate that season, where to send emissaries and scouting parties, whom to raid, whether to focus on herding, crafting, or sharing stories, and so on:
This is essential stuff — a clan that’s short on cows isn’t much of a clan — but by itself, not terribly exciting. The heart and soul of Six Ages is the illustrated story events that pop up, like the one below. Some are one-offs. Some are part of ongoing subplots. Some are major story beats. And one sequence turns out to be the path to winning the game. Each offers a choice:
The key is to think like your people, the Riders. Understand their ways, their portents, their rituals. Tradition is a good guide, though not infallible. When in doubt, conducting a divination is usually a good first step, and sacrificing to the gods a good second step. Your advisors, at the bottom of the screen, will chip in with their own opinions (more skilled advisors give better advice).
Six Ages’ design goals are clearest in the rituals in which you send a hero into the gods’ world to seek a boon (in a clever touch, the mortal and divine worlds are drawn in different styles and by different artists – see the image below). The ritual unfolds as a reenactment of the chosen god’s myth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style: how should Ernalda, goddess of trade, win the trust of geese? What should Busenari the cow-mother ask from her counterpart the horse goddess? Your clan can do several things to prepare, for instance, allocating points to ritual magic, requesting worshippers from friendly clans, and sending the right hero. And you, the player, can prepare by going to the game’s “lore” section and reading the myth. It’s not a test of rote knowledge — I have succeeded by going off-script, and I’ve read a developer interview (linked below) indicating that these quests were designed to be flexible. At the same time, I would not go in blind, and the act of reading and preparing brings me one step closer to the characters and the world they inhabit.
And that’s what Six Ages does so well. It’s a game about peoples, mythologies, and the mindset that connects the two; and a story that takes advantage of its medium. I would like to see more like this, and I look forward to the planned sequels.
The perfect game to unwind. In the last few weeks, PicrossS2, the latest in a long-running family of puzzle games, has become a regular part of my gaming. It is relaxing and at the same time, challenging enough to keep me entertained. Each puzzle is an iterative process, beginning with a few clues. The numbers on the sides tell me how many squares should be filled in each row or column. At the start, there’s enough information to identify the first few squares that I should (or shouldn’t) fill in:
After marking the relevant squares, I can use this new knowledge to identify the next set of squares, and repeat. This is the same puzzle, almost complete:
Manageable, and manageably bite-sized. Most of the puzzles I’ve played take around five minutes to solve. There are several ways to increase the challenge: turning hints off (as I did in the screenshots), trying different game modes, and playing larger, more complex puzzles. So far, I’ve been content to gradually work my way up — I prefer my puzzles on the soothing side!
And it is soothing. There is logic to this game, and routine, and the knowledge that those routines will ultimately solve the puzzle. I expect this to be my “quick break” game for some time to come.
A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.
Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.
A much-anticipated treat. The Nintendo Switch is a technological marvel: docked and connected to a TV, it offers the power of a traditional console; unplugged, it offers the flexibility of a portable device. I’ve kept an eye on the Switch since before launch, and when I saw a good Boxing Day deal from Amazon Australia, I pounced. So far, I am delighted, both with the Switch and the two games I’ve bought: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a colourful, charming tactical RPG. The game is an odd beast — developed by Ubisoft using the Mario IP — and at first glance, the influence of Firaxis’s XCOM is clear, as Mario peers from behind cover and runs up to take flanking shots. Two things distinguish Mario + Rabbids. First is the importance and ease of movement: characters can dash into enemies, extend their movement range by trampolining off allies, and traverse large distances by diving into pipes. Second is the sense of joy, as pronounced as in any Nintendo first-party game: the world is bright and vibrant, and the animations are delightful — right down to Mario’s exaggerated, panicky body language when an enemy flanks him. So far the game has been easy; I understand that it becomes much harder later on. I look forward to playing more!
Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the majesty of exploration — and the danger. Unlike other open-world games I’ve played, which revolved around combat, Breath of the Wild is about exploration for its own sake. Combat, quests, and NPCs do exist, but so far, in limited quantities. Instead, my time has been mostly spent roaming the wilderness, solving the odd puzzle, and using my wits to survive. I’ve used my powers to cross a lethal, fast-flowing river; cooked up (literally – there is a crafting/cooking system) dishes to protect against the cold — and ran from monsters until I found a decent weapon. I’ve also marvelled at sunsets, climbed up trees to pluck apples, and stood at a campfire experimenting with recipes. As a child, I loved Zelda: Link to the Past; over 20 years later, Breath of the Wild has brought that magic back.
Some interesting releases set for 2018. I’m particularly interested in tactical RPGs, of which at least two are due out this year: Valkyria Chronicles 4 and an unnamed Fire Emblem game. I’ll also keep an eye on RPGs (including 16-bit JRPG homage Project Octopath Traveller and Shin Megami Tensei 5) and a turn-based strategy game (Wargroove). Between these and the games already out, I expect my Switch to get plenty of use this year.
Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.
The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…
The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.
Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.
Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!
Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.
There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope. This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:
Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.
The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.
I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:
Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
Warhammer II: still deciding…Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.
My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.
… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.
The future of Total War
I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!
Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.
Here are three observations:
The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.
The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.
Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.
All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!
Short, clever homage to Westerns. Westerado: Double Barrelled uses a simple premise — find the gunman who murdered your family — to take the player on a romp through the genre’s tropes: bandits, six-shooters, a crooked tycoon, a cowardly sheriff, horseback chases, blue-coated soldiers, and a protagonist who looks awfully like the Man with No Name. Mechanically, it’s a short-form open-world game, mostly top-down, although the occasional horseback sequences are viewed side-on. Solving quests earns clues as to the murderer’s identity; in between quests, the player can hunt bounties, explore the map, and tussle with bandits. That fits the premise, given that the archetypal western is about the stranger riding into town to solve a problem.
Brevity is part of Westerado’s appeal — I clocked in at 4 hours per Steam, after finishing many (not all) the side quests. That, to me, felt about right. First, I don’t think the game’s mechanics could support a much longer run; by the time I wrapped up, I had more than enough clues to find the murderer and was anxious to trigger the final showdown. Second, the designers set up the game to encourage multiple playthroughs — the player can ally with one of several different quest-givers, and following different quest lines will produce different endings.
Strong indie aesthetic — the pixel art can be striking (see above screenshot), and the soundtrack is twangy, catchy, and atmospheric.
Recommended. Since finishing the game a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been digging through spaghetti Western soundtracks on Spotify and contemplating re-watches of genre classics. It’s a good sign when a game prompts me to engage with its source material — especially when that game is a homage!
Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.
One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.
More detailed thoughts below:
At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.
Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).
Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guilli’s Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).
I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.
Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.
Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.
… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.
What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.
This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.
Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.
Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)
Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)
For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.
Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.
On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.
The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.
When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.
Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.
Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.
Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.
Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.
What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.
From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.